When Johnny and I got together I had been unemployed for over two years, let go from my recreation job with the City of Berkeley in the aftermath of the 2009 national recession. I had been unable to find another recreation job or similar position and I had only had one interview in two years. I had sold a few watercolor paintings and a few music CDs, weeded my bookshelves and CD collections for things I could take to used stores, worked as a poll worker. I had tried working with a coach to help me attract writing practice students and planned to offer a free introductory evening in January 2013, but by October 2012 I was pretty desperate for money. I was heard to mutter things like, “I don’t need a job, I just need an income.”

I had done some work with Maia Duerr and her Liberated Life Project, focusing on right livelihood. Late in the fall she sent me a reference to a post of two by Chris Guillebeau about how to make cash to pay the bills. He mentioned holding a garage sale and selling infrequently used items, but he also mentioned busking or performing in public. “I can do that,” I thought, “I can sing and play guitar. What have I got to lose?”

I told Johnny I planned to investigate playing at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market where I had shopped for years. I found out that I could sign up for three spots a month to play two and a half hour shifts. He said, “That’s great, honey. Think of it as getting paid for practicing” and asked me to let him know when I was scheduled to sing there.

Buoyed up by Johnny’s encouragement and some future busking shifts at the market, I decided to try busking at Berkeley BART during the morning commute. I went one day early to check out the situation and decided to catch the bus at 7:19 on weekday mornings starting October 15th, 2012. I would walk to the BART station, take up a spot against a brick wall opposite the escalator leading to the rotunda, salt my open case with a few bills, tune my guitar and sing for two hours, playing whatever I could think of to play. At the end of the shift I would collect my earnings and pocket them, pack up my guitar and reverse my steps to the bus stop to go home.

I learned to carry a couple of quarts of water and set them next to my guitar case within easy reach. Singing is thirsty work and goes better if your vocal cords are well-lubricated. I learned to start off with songs in the middle of my range so as to warm up on the job and to save more challenging material for later in the shift: I sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” ascending on the chorus, but I never sang it first thing. Better to begin with something like Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” or a Chris Smither/Dave Van Ronk hybrid of “Green, Green Rocky Road” or “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

I learned to group my songs by what fret I played them on: playing on first fret without a capo tires my once-broken left hand. Dropped D tuning eases it a bit, but when I started I couldn’t count on being able to hold the strings down on first fret by the end of my two-hour shift. I played continuously so as to keep my spot, stopping only to drink water, pocket any large bills or answer a question from a passer-by. When people liked what I sang they smiled, gave me a thumbs up or tossed a coin or a small bill into my case. My first busking shift netted me five dollars profit after I covered my bus fare.

I learned to value songs that allowed me to fingerpick their melodies in between some verses because they gave my voice time to rest. Singing solo for two or two-and-a-half hours is a lot, especially if you don’t play many guitar solos. Even opera singers don’t sing continuously for hours.

The hardest thing about busking is keeping your spirits and energy up on a low-tip day. My years of zen practice helped with this: I saw my job as to show up, to sing and to accept whatever I was given — if I earned anything at all, it was more than I would have earned sitting at home. Of course, I preferred days when the tips piled up in my guitar case and lots of people praised my voice, my repertory, even my guitar playing, just as I preferred cash tips to the days when people gave me cookies, bananas and business cards. I did appreciate it when fans bought me coffee, tea, or bottles of water, especially if they asked me what I would like.

I wryly termed my busking shifts “the day job” because they took place during daylight hours and I began busking to bring in money rather than purely for the love of singing. I developed a habit of phoning Johnny after my morning shift at BART to report my earnings for the day — it became one of our rituals.

“How’d you do?,” he’d ask.

“Pretty good,” I’d say when someone had thrown me a twenty. Or, “Today was tough” when a young woman playing the harp set up in front of the coffee stand and the escalator was broken so that fewer people filed past me. “The good news is that I played my whole shift.”

“That’s show business,” he’d say. “Good for you.”

Pretty quickly I decided that I needed to earn ten dollars a day minimum and that if I didn’t earn my ten in the morning I would return to Berkeley after lunch to play a limited one-hour shift. To encourage myself to do the second shift I made a rule that I would only play whatever I most wanted to play. But, in the main, I liked busking better than anything else I had done (I had wanted to be a folksinger from the minute I heard my first Joan Baez record in fifth grade) and here I was playing folk songs five days a week in public and making a little money doing it.